Benefits of Ecosystem Services in Agriculture

Authored by: Samantha Clark, Logan Thompson Ph.D, and Kim Stackhouse-Lawson, Ph.D

Ecosystem services payment can contribute significantly to sustainability goals of incorporating the economic, social, and environmental components together for a sustainable agricultural system. Outside of providing provisioning services, agriculture is intrinsically linked with and supported by the surrounding ecosystem. Additionally, billions of people around the world rely on agriculture for their livelihood and have deep cultural ties that must be included in the discussion of sustainability. This is important to consider when working towards sustainability and making changes to the system. Ecosystem services are important and should not be forgotten in the journey to sustainability. There are four different types of ecosystem services: provisioning, regulating, cultural, and supporting.

Provisioning Services

Provisioning services are products that are generated from the environment. Provisioning services include food, fiber, fuel, genetic resources, biochemicals, natural medicines, pharmaceuticals, and ornamental resources (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005). Agriculture is important in supplying many of these services. Both crop and livestock production provide food products like vegetables, fruits, grains, meats, and dairy products. Agriculture also provides fiber, like cotton and wool that can be used for products like clothing and bedding. Fuel includes biofuels from corn, cellulolytic biofuel and manure from animals. Genetic resources include genetic information from crops and livestock grown and cared for that can help to improve health, productivity, and more. Agriculture and health are closely related, and agriculture and livestock have direct links to the development of medicines and pharmaceuticals. Agriculture also produces ornamental resources such as leather, skins, flowers, and other decorations. Agriculture, both crop and livestock, provide many benefits and provisioning services to people and communities around the globe.  

Regulating Services

Regulating services are the benefits that are obtained from the regulation of ecosystem processes. Some regulation services include air quality, climate, water, erosion, water purification and waste treatment, disease, pest, pollination, and natural hazard regulation (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005). Agriculture can contribute positive environmental outcomes while producing food. Agriculture can increase soil carbon sequestration and protect already stored carbon in rangelands which is important part in climate regulation (The 4 per 1000 Initiative, 2020). In certain regions and climates, increased use of cover crops can reduce erosion and water waste and help the surrounding ecosystem by increasing the habitat and food source of pollinators. Cover crops and prairie strips in cropping systems can also increase wildlife and predator habitat, which can reduce pest problems.

Cultural Services

Cultural services are the nonmaterial benefits people and communities gain from ecosystems. These include cultural diversity, spiritual and religious values, knowledge systems, educational values, inspiration, aesthetic values, social relations, sense of place, cultural heritage values, and recreation and ecotourism (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005). Agriculture provides economic vitality in rural communities, and as a result living and working in a rural area can lead to a shared set of community values and norms.  Recreation and agritourism are also becoming more and more popular and allows for agriculture to increase profits and educate others (McGehee, 2007).

Supporting Services

Supporting services are those that are necessary to produce all other ecosystem services. These include soil formation, photosynthesis, nutrient cycling, and water cycling (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005). Agriculture plays a part in each of these services. Soil formation and healthy functioning is vital to a productive landscape, including crop growth. Degradation of the soil leads to reduced nutrient and water uptake by crops which results in lower yield, and therefore less food grown. Photosynthesis is also vital to a productive landscape, and a productive agricultural system. Crops utilize photosynthesis in order to grow and produce. Livestock depend on these crops for food. Plants convert light energy into glucose and uptake nutrients from the soil that they use for growth. Livestock are able to take the energy and nutrients from plants, and upcycle them into high-quality protein. Without nutrient cycling and water cycling, agriculture cannot be successful. But agriculture also contributes to and utilizes these cycles to produce valuable food for livestock, people, and communities.  



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The “4 per 1000” Initiative Soils for Food Security and Climate Leaflet. 2020.